Grief makes a Franco-American man do strange things in “Maddened by His Absence,” the initially intriguing feature fiction debut of Gallic actress-turned-helmer Sandrine Bonnaire. Pic stars Bonnaire’s real-life partner from the 1990s, William Hurt, in a meaty role as a man returning to France eight years after the death of his child, and still consumed by the tragedy. If Hurt doesn’t quite pulloff a Kristin Scott Thomas, it can be blamed more on the writing than on his impeccable, mostly French-language perf. Francophone arthouses will sign on, though the screenplay problems will make it a tougher sell overseas.
Pic’s early going, in short, extremely clipped scenes, suggests that time can’t pass fast enough for Jacques (Hurt), who has come back to Gaul from the U.S. to deal with his French father’s funeral and inheritance. The middle-aged, Boston-based architect decides to take the opportunity to seek out French logistics worker Mado (Alexandra Lamy), with whom he fathered a child who died eight years earlier; he hasn’t been in contact with Mado since.
Not only is Jacques not over the loss of the boy; he still feels responsible for the accident that killed him. (His own father’s death, by comparison, seems to have no impact on him at all.) Mado, on the other hand, has moved on, forming a new family with Stephane (Augustin Legrand), with whom she has a young son, Paul (Jalil Mehenni).
By juxtaposing these two simple elements, and throwing in some solid early scenes that suggest the couple’s bond was a strong one, and that it was the tragic death of their child more than any fundamental relationship problem that drove them apart, Bonnaire, who also directed the feature docu “Her Name Is Sabine,” has quite the setup for a captivating psychological drama.
But her screenplay, co-written by Jerome Tonnerre (“My Best Friend”), doesn’t come up with anything more insightful than having Jacques see in Paul a substitute for what he has lost, which motivates him to secretly move into the basement of the apartment building of Mado’s new family. Absent any opportunity for deeper character insight, the only suspense of the story is generated by the question of how long Jacques can keep from being discovered.
Greatly aided by the beautifully lit chiaroscuro photography of Belgian d.p. Philippe Guilbert, leads Hurt, Lamy and little Mehenni let their expressive eyes do a lot of the talking, especially in the expository first half-hour, when Bonnaire leaves room for quite a few unspoken things to hover in the air. All three thesps bring more depth and nuance to the table than what must have been on paper, with Mehenni easily holding his own opposite Hurt and comic actress Lamy, working in a convincing dramatic register here (she’s probably best-known Stateside as the gorgeous wife of Jean Dujardin).
It’s a shame, then, that the pic doesn’t really take its characters and story anywhere interesting, and starts to feel overlong and repetitive before coming to a rather perfunctory close, with the character of Stephane particularly slighted.
Technically, the pic is slick.